Jabhat al-Nusra looks for battlefield breakout

Jabhat al-Nusra has opened up new offensive fronts in Syria’s Bosra al-Sham and Idlib.

al-monitor Islamists from the Syrian rebel group Jabhat al-Nusra drive a tank on al-Khazan front line of Khan Sheikhoun, northern Idlib province, May 17, 2014. Photo by REUTERS/Hamid Khatib.

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war, syria, jabhat al-nusra, idlib, homs, free syrian army, daraa

Mar 29, 2015

Syria's northern and southern battlefields witnessed serious escalations during the last few days, at a time when questions abound about the true course of ongoing battles and resulting military developments.

The success of Jabhat al-Nusra and other Islamic factions in overrunning the city of Bosra al-Sham in Daraa’s eastern countryside after four days of fierce battles may be considered the first real breakthrough by the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and Jabhat al-Nusra in more than five months, during which they suffered devastating defeats in Deir al-Adas, Tell Qurein and Tell al-Mal in the northern countryside.

The city, part of which is under the control of the FSA, seemed to be an easy target when compared with other, tougher objectives, such as the city of Daraa or al-Sanamein. Furthermore, the eastern countryside remained relatively quiet for a considerable period of time, if compared with the violent confrontation taking place in the western part of the countryside and inside the “triangle of death,” as all the armed factions’ bids to provoke social or inter-clan discord failed to materialize in the area.

However, Bosra al-Sham's importance surpassed its archaeological and cultural significance, for battlefield sources confirmed that fighting reached its apogee at the Roman castle and amphitheater, which UNESCO listed as a World Heritage site. All coordination committees stressed the need to protect the site and warned against stealing or removing any artifacts.

Another interesting aspect of the battle for Bosra al-Sham was the fact that the vast majority of combatants came from the FSA, and more specifically, al-Omari Brigades, the Islamic Muthanna Movement and convoys sent by Jabhat al-Nusra. This proves that the relationship between the armed factions and Jabhat al-Nusra remains strong, at a time when the latter sought to gradually strengthen its positions in the south.

In this context, it seems clear that southern armed factions have decided to open up other fronts. Opposition activists reported that a new battle has begun for control over the town of Jediya in Daraa’s northern countryside, which overlooks the old road between Damascus and Daraa, and where an artillery battalion is located adjacent to the city of al-Hara. In addition, the area allows suppressive fire to target the cities of Nawa, Aqraba and Jasem, where the First Army, the Ababil Horan Brigades, the First Commando Unit and al-Omari Brigades are located. The attack is not going smoothly, though, with opposition sources acknowledging being targeted by artillery and aircraft, which stalled their advance and forced them to retreat to al-Hara, though they did expect the battle to resume anew in the next few days.

The battle for Idlib

Perhaps the common denominator between the events in Bosra al-Sham in the south and Idlib [captured by Jabhat al-Nusra on March 28] in the north is the militants’ desire to achieve a breakthrough on the battlefield. In that regard, the battles in the town of el-Zeitoun may be described as an attempt to achieve a psychological victory as opposed to a militarily significant victory, since the town does not have any military importance and is not located on any major supply routes.

In contrast, Jabhat al-Nusra believes that its control over the town of el-Zeitoun, with support from al-Fateh Army, would mirror its achievements two years prior, when it took control of the city of Raqqa and its adjoining countryside, prior to its retreat and surrendering of the area to the Islamic State (IS).

In this battle, Jabhat al-Nusra is heavily relying on radicalized militants. Dozens of suicide attacks have been recorded in the past few days, allowing the group to advance in certain areas, part of which the Syrian army managed to retake, thus fortifying its positions inside buildings and on main roads. These developments explain why the confrontations remained confined to the area around the industrial city and the northern and eastern gates to the city of Idlib. In addition, warplanes played a key role in deciding the course of battles. Planes targeted militant positions and killed Hassan al-Khalifa (Abu Haidar), the commander of the Ahrar-al-Sham-affiliated Omar al-Farouq Brigade, as well as the No. 2 in Ahrar al-Sham, Abu Jamil al-Qutb.

In this context, it seemed evident that the series of communiques issued by the factions and the statements released by Salafist cleric Abdullah al-Mheisni did not succeed in averting the targeting of civilians. Hundreds of shells fell on city neighborhoods that are inhabited by more than half a million people, leading to the death of 11 people and the wounding of more than 20.

In addition, a military source told Syrian Arab News Agency that “army and armed forces units took full control of the Ish al-Nusur heights, as well as the Shir al-Taqa and Shir-al-Jouba hills on the western Zabadani mountain range,” located 11 kilometers [7 miles] from the Lebanese border.

In parallel, Syrian air defenses shot down a second international coalition drone over the city of Homs after it targeted an ammunition depot in the Wadi al-Zahab region. A military source told As-Safir that air defenses succeeded in shooting down the plane after it launched two missiles at an ammunition depot yesterday [March 26] at dawn, which caused a large explosion and destroyed the depot.

This was followed by Brigade 186 of the Syrian army hitting moving targets with artillery, which raised speculation about ensuing battles or an attempt to storm the city of Homs by armed militants. Despite the enormity of the explosion that rocked the area adjacent to the regional military headquarters, no human casualties were reported, as confirmed by a medical source in Homs.

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